By Lily Zacharias
In 2015, the United Nations agreed on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. There was significant discussion over whether or not to include LGBTQ+ rights within the goal of “reducing inequalities.” Ultimately, LGBTQ+ rights did not make it into the goals, as they were blocked by Russia and Eastern European nations, most members of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, and many African countries. Despite this, it is easy to see how they might one day be explicitly included in development goals, as Western nations seem to think of LGBTQ+ rights as a standard for development. The us-versus-them rhetoric used to compare the West with the rest of the world easily plays into the framework of development. While it may seem useful to position rights for sexual and gender minorities within this framework, doing so is ultimately harmful to the people it claims to protect.
While development is not by any means a black and white issue, we in the West tend to see nations as being “developed” or “developing.” This suggests that once a nation has reached the “developed” stage, it is no longer in the process of improving—it has reached the ideal, while the rest of the world has not yet caught up. Because there are benefits that come with being seen as a developed nation, there are incentives for some nations to appear as though they have met the goals set by development agendas, even if the reality is quite different. A good example is post-communist states in Europe. In Global Homophobia, Connor O’Dwyer argues that the disparity between societal homophobia and legal rights in these countries suggests that the example of the EU is causing them to adopt more progressive laws than would otherwise be expected. Incorporating LGBTQ+ rights into development discourse may have a similar effect, since in many cases they would be imposed through international pressure and top-down reforms.
Scholars like Javier Corrales, a professor at Amherst College who researches LGBT rights in Latin America, believe the benefits outweigh the risks. International legal precedent makes it easier to fight for rights in court and debate is stirred in response to “international exhortation or even top-down legislation from above.” Corrales explains that “you develop new queer allies” who either had not previously existed or had not previously been vocal about the issue, which is key to creating a support network for sexual and gender minorities.
Additionally, this facilitates interaction between movements across the globe. Homophobes have international connections that give them “intellectual and financial help from abroad,” which Corrales believes requires rights activists to have an international strategy in order to effectively respond. Corrales explains that in Argentina, LGBTQ+ movements receive international backing and look at outside models for strategies to fight homophobia. Including LGBTQ+ rights in development goals would help provide these movements with the international institutional support they need.
There are also complex costs to these actions. While international solidarity is important, regional differences complicate matters. Thabo Msibi argues that “Africans have always seen sexuality in highly complex ways, which cannot readily be translated into the predominant Western sexual categories,” and that the ideas of homosexuality and being gay have distinctly Western roots. Applying Western categorization erases the identities of regionally specific gender and sexual minorities, replacing them with the labels of gay and lesbian. International development language that prioritizes language dominant in the West, such as “LGBT,” strengthens the argument that homosexuality is a Western import. Authoritarian governments in countries like Nigeria, Uganda, and Iran use this notion to nation-build by presenting homophobic policy as a rejection of Western influence.
Wary communities often respond negatively to values they see as imposed by the West. Corrales explains that reform has caused a backlash in some countries, such as the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, where “societies rebel, they turn this into a nationalist reaction.” These reforms are framed by their opponents as foreign-backed attacks on national identity, an accusation that in many cases is complicated by colonial histories. This results in an increase in hate crimes against sexual and gender minorities. Because the reforms are imposed from the top down and are inspired in part by international pressure, the institutions that interact with sexual and gender minorities on a daily basis do not always alter their practices. Corrales points out that legal change does not “necessarily require institutional change and implementation.” When many sexual and gender minorities experience poverty and institutions on the ground level do not function well, it becomes difficult to take the legal action these reforms are designed to allow them to take. In nations like Brazil, which has marriage equality in place, “the state doesn’t do much to punish instances of violations of the laws,” leaving sexual and gender minorities with legal precedent but little change in their daily lives, as many national institutions are not held accountable for failing to uphold these laws.
The positioning of LGBTQ+ rights within development discourse makes it more difficult for international institutions to address homophobic actions in certain countries. Development on social issues tends to be judged based on a checklist of rights, and once a nation meets most of the criteria on the list, the implication is that it no longer needs to improve—regardless of whether or not that is the reality. This forces the rights of gender and sexual minorities further down on the list of national priorities as international pressure plateaus. Classifying progress in this way ignores the struggles these groups face and creates the idea that Western nations have finished developing regarding LGBTQ+ rights while other nations still have a long way to go. In 2015 alone, however, the United States had more reported murders of trans people than any country in Latin America other than Brazil, even as the U.S. ranks above every country in the region in the Human Development Index.
Defining LGBTQ+ rights in terms of development discourse does little to nothing to change societal attitudes and puts sexual and gender minorities in a worse position when negotiating for institutional change. This is not an argument against international solidarity movements, nor is it an argument accusing those in favor of framing LGBTQ+ rights as an international development goal of being neocolonialist. Instead, it is an argument for stepping back from a dialogue that can lead to the simplification of these issues for the sake of legal rights. These rights could be obtained without international development discourse in a manner that addresses regional diversity in sexual politics, understandings of sexual identity, and motivations behind homophobic laws.
Lily Zacharias is a research assistant at World Policy Institute.
[Photo courtesy of Diego Cambiaso]